Brother Orchid, 1940. 6/10

“I want you to pick up a couple of roscoes, and a torpedo or two…” Bogart and Edward G. Robinson in the same movie! Can’t lose formula right there. Robinson is gangster Johnny Sarto, Bogart–another gangster, Jack Buck. Plus Ann Sothern as Johnny’s fiancee Flo and Ralph Bellamy as Clarence Fletcher, a fellow gangster who becomes more important as things progress; a string of Brothers (Donald Crisp, Charles D. Brown, and Cecil Kellaway as Bros. Superior, Wren, and Goodwin respectively). Actual monk brothers, of The Order of the Flower.

What a devious premise for a gangster going undercover–hiding out with monks. It seems that Johnny has not only lost his fortune– he’s also lost his pull with the mob; specifically with Jack, thus the subterfuge. I’m already thinking, though, that any bandwagon comedy stuff is threatening to sabotage the movie’s tone. There’s too many dopey guys mucking things up.

Luckily, once Brother Orchid (Johnny) gets ensconced at the monastery, his fish-out-of-water status is enough to drive the comedy along a more laconic path. As nutty as his status would seem to be there, Johnny fits in, finding their culture similar to prison. Plus, he’s useful. The monastery’s flower business is controlled by a protection racket, which Johnny alone amongst the monks, knows how to deal with.

Johnny gets back in with his old cohorts, mainly Clarence, with the admirable proposition of running the protection racket out of town. Johnny and Jack fight it out, mano-a-mano. The police show up at the melee, bagging the bad guys. Johnny makes a welcome return to the monastery, as he’s lauded for saving their business; also he’s complimentary of their “real class.”

This is an interesting and entertaining movie, not least because of the premise. Robinson’s performance is rat-a-tat gritty and genuinely down-to-earth sincere according to which milieu he inhabits. On the other hand, Bogart and Sothern aren’t left with much to do except react to Robinson. The major fault I have with Brother Orchid concerns the wooden performance of the fellow monks. All of the interest (including the humor) there is carried by Johnny, the others are neither very concerned with his criminal past, nor very eager to learn more about it.

He might as well have been aboard ship, in prison, or just about anywhere, as the ambience at the monastery is entirely visual–not character-driven. On the other hand, despite having two entirely different stories to flesh out, the pacing is pretty good. Because of the combination of useful and distracting humor, and some of the missed opportunities, Brother Orchid is unusual in that it shows both good and bad examples of combining crime/gangster movies with comedy.

Recommended specifically for fans of Edward G. Robinson; otherwise, kind of an odd curiosity. Farmermouse thought the flower business was pretty cool, so he gives Brother Orchid six zinnias. 6/10

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